While backing plans to build condos in their wards, two aldermen representing Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and other booming neighborhoods got loans from a bank headed by the lawyer for the developers, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) and Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) each has gotten mortgages from Belmont Bank & Trust, according to a Sun-Times’ review of the more than 1,200 mortgages that the small, Northwest Side bank has made since it opened 11 years ago.
Maldonado’s loans totaled nearly $1 million, Moreno’s $885,000, according to records and interviews.
The chairman of the bank? James Banks, who’s also one of the city’s busiest zoning and development lawyers. He is the largest shareholder in Belmont Bank, according to records it filed with the Federal Reserve Bank.
Since becoming loan customers of Belmont Bank, Maldonado and Moreno each has voted on more than 200 zoning cases involving Banks’ law firm, including dozens of projects in their wards. They have never abstained from voting on any case involving Banks or his firm, city records show.
They’ve also signed off on tearing down homes and stores that were replaced by condos built by developers who hired the clout-heavy Banks firm to shepherd their construction projects through City Hall, the records show.
Like all Chicago aldermen, Maldonado and Moreno have the power to block any zoning changes in their wards. Once approved, the rest of the City Council typically goes along.
One of every five zoning changes Banks has won from the Chicago City Council the past five years involved property in either Moreno’s 1st Ward or Maldonado’s 26th Ward. The council approved each of them without opposition from any of the 50 aldermen.
Since Moreno got a one-year line of credit and a five-year mortgage from Belmont Bank in 2013, Banks has won 43 zoning cases in Moreno’s ward — more than in any other ward.
Moreno — who landed a seat last year on the City Council zoning committee, which hears Banks’ clients’ zoning cases — says he had no reason to abstain from zoning cases involving the lawyer who’s also chairman of the bank that held two mortgages on his home.
“I got a private mortgage on my house, and I paid it off,” Moreno says. “It’s a private transaction.”
He says aldermen often vote on matters involving financial institutions that gave them a mortgage. He says that’s difficult to avoid.
“Now, I have a mortgage with Guaranteed Rate that was sold to Chase,” Moreno says. “Chase does business with the city.”
Maldonado won’t talk about his loans or answer questions about how they might have affected his official actions, other than providing a written statement. In it, he clarified the amount of money he actually got, saying it’s far less than what records show.
His written statement also says, “I secured these loans according to all bank laws and regulations.”
Regarding the bank’s chairman, Maldonado wrote: “James Banks is one of Chicago’s leading attorneys in zoning and real estate law and represents clients throughout the city. I review zoning requests based on the merit of the proposal and the impact on the surrounding community, and I have rejected zoning requests from Mr. Banks’ law firm when they were not in the best interest of the community.”
Banks didn’t return calls, referring questions to William McCarty III, the president and chief executive officer of Belmont Bank.
McCarty says the aldermen were treated like all of the bank’s customers, a clientele list that’s included Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, as well as other politicians and clout-heavy businessmen.
“Anybody that walks in my door and gives an application . . . if they qualify, we have to provide them a loan,” McCarty says. “There’s no special treatment.”
Maldonado first borrowed from Belmont Bank in June 2012. Cook County records show the bank filed eight separate mortgages totaling $4,482,000 against six properties owned by Maldonado — his home, a three-story building and four lots that his wife later sold to a developer, who built eight townhomes along the abandoned railroad that’s been converted into The 606, the popular recreation trail that’s given a boost to the real estate market in the area.
Despite the figures given for those eight mortgages filed with the Cook County recorder of deeds, Maldonado provided the Sun-Times with a statement from Belmont Bank saying the alderman got only three loans that totaled $984,000. The bank says one loan has been repaid and that the alderman owes a total of $713,097 on the two remaining loans.
“Everything we’ve done with Mr. Maldonado has been paid off in full . . . or is performing,” says McCarty, the bank president. “There’s been no forgiveness of debt. We haven’t forgiven any debt to him. And we haven’t written off any debt to him. Everything is at market rate. We’re not in the business of giving people preferential treatment.”
Maldonado got his first loan from Belmont Bank on June 15, 2012. That was nine days after the alderman was part of a 46-0 City Council vote to subdivide a lot in his ward so a client of Banks’ law firm could replace a single-family home with a pair of three-story buildings.
Though Maldonado and the bank say the loan was for $500,000, the bank placed a $1 million mortgage — double the value of the loan — on the alderman’s two-story home, which he built on three lots in Humboldt Park. The home is half a block south of The 606.
The alderman owes $392,733 on this loan, which the mortgage filed by his bank with the Cook County recorder of deeds shows was due last month. The bank says the loan is current and active.
Maldonado got a second loan four months later, this time borrowing $130,000. Belmont Bank filed three separate mortgages against Maldonado’s property totaling $650,000 — five times the value of the loan — as collateral. It put a second mortgage on the alderman’s home for $260,000, another mortgage for $260,000 on his two vacant lots on Monticello and a mortgage for $130,000 on his two lots on Central Park.
According to the bank, this loan has been repaid.
Maldonado got a third loan from Belmont Bank five months after the second loan, this one for $354,000. To secure this loan, the bank placed four separate mortgages totaling $2,832,000 against Maldonado’s real estate. It put a $708,000 mortgage on his home — the bank’s third mortgage on the alderman’s house — a $708,000 on his two-story building at 2548 W. Division, a $708,000 mortgage on the Monticello vacant lots and a $708,000 mortgage on the Central Park vacant lots.
Maldonado owes $320,364 on this loan, which is due next April. The bank removed the mortgages from the vacant lots last November, nearly two years after Maldonado sold the property, but the mortgages on his house and the Division Street property remain in effect, records show.
McCarty says Belmont Bank typically files mortgages for double the amount of a loan to a customer. He says that’s “to protect the bank and shareholders” if a borrower fails to repay the loan, forcing the bank to take legal action to recover its money and other costs.
Filing mortgages for double the amount of the loan is sometimes done to prevent borrowers from using the same property as collateral to obtain additional loans from other institutions, according to financial sources.
After obtaining the loans on his four vacant lots, which are in his ward, Maldonado transferred the property to a trust in his wife’s name. As with the neighboring homes, these lots were zoned for manufacturing when the alderman’s wife filed with City Hall to rezone the property so she could sell it to a developer who wanted to build homes along The 606 trail.
Maldonado abstained from voting when the City Council rezoned the land on Nov. 19, 2014. Four months later, a lawyer from Banks’ firm helped Maldonado’s wife sell the property to a development company headed by Sergiy Vasilechko for $500,000 — $335,000 over what her husband paid for the land more than a decade earlier.
Though the Maldonados sold the property that had been used as collateral for two loans from Belmont Bank, the bank’s mortgages on the property remained in force for nearly two years, long after Vasilechko began building the townhomes. The bank removed the mortgages last Nov. 16, as Vasilechko’s company borrowed from another lender to finish the eight townhomes, now for sale. One unit sold for $489,250 shortly before Memorial Day, records show.
The statement from Belmont Bank says the mortgages were released when the Maldonados sold the property in 2015 a few months before The 606 opened, but the title company “failed to” file the documents with the county showing the mortgages were paid. Belmont Bank says those mortgages were released when it was contacted by a new title company on behalf of Vasilechko, who was seeking a loan for the property.
Though the Belmont Bank mortgages remained on the property long after the Maldonados sold the land, Vasilechko’s attorney, Daniel Lauer, says his client “funded construction out of his pocket, which is the way he does business. He was finally able to get a loan on this property last November, after construction was ongoing for about a year.”Belmont Bank still has two liens on the alderman’s home and another on his building at 2548 W. Division, county records show.
Since Maldonado began borrowing from Belmont Bank, the City Council has approved 278 zoning changes involving clients of the Banks law firm. All passed without opposition. Records show Maldonado voted for 263 of them, including 22 projects in his ward.
Moreno became a customer of Belmont Bank after Maldonado. He got a $125,000 line of credit on his Wicker Park home in April 2013 and a $760,000 mortgage six months later, records show — a total of $885,000.
But the bank recorded two mortgages totaling $1.77 million on Moreno’s home. The bank removed those liens last December, when Moreno says he repaid the money.
The line of credit was supposed to repaid in April 2014, and the mortgage was due late next year. Both loans were released on Dec. 23, 2016, indicating Moreno repaid the mortgage two years early, while his 12-month line of credit appears to have remained open for 44 months.
Moreno says he was always current on his payments to Belmont Bank. He says he never renegotiated the loans and doesn’t know why his line of credit remained open years after he was to have repaid it.
Bank’s chairman a key player in building, development in Chicago
Over the past two decades, James Banks has become one of Chicago’s go-to zoning attorneys.
He’s helped numerous small developers reshape neighborhoods across the city, often replacing single-family homes with condo buildings.
Many of those condos have been built with financing from Belmont Bank, where he’s chairman and the biggest shareholder.
Sales of those condos often go through Sergio & Banks, a real estate company Banks co-owns with his wife Grace Sergio.
Banks also owns the Law Offices of Samuel V.P. Banks, a three-lawyer firm founded by his late father, a criminal defense attorney who represented clients accused of being mobsters. At the Operation Family Secrets mob trial a decade ago, a one-time burglar testified he’d bribed cops by passing them money through Sam Banks, who was never charged with any wrongdoing.
James Banks — a member of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board since his appointment by Gov. Jim Edgar in 1993 — also came up during that mob trial in 2007. The widow of slain mobster Michael Spilotro testified that she sold her late husband’s restaurant to Banks and his business partner, former state Sen. James DeLeo. She testified she was unhappy with the sale price, though, and appealed to Chicago mob boss James Marcello.
Sam Banks was the brother of attorney William Banks, a former Chicago alderman who headed the City Council’s zoning committee when James Banks began representing developers seeking zoning changes from Chicago’s aldermen. William Banks resigned from the City Council eight years ago to become an attorney for developers seeking zoning changes from City Hall.
James Banks once served on the board of Citizens Bank and Trust of Chicago but left the board long before state and federal regulators shut down the bank.
A few years later, he started Belmont Bank, which opened in 2006 next door to his real estate firm on the Far Northwest Side with his father on the board of directors. His cousin, Ronald Banks, is the bank’s chief financial officer. DeLeo also serves on the board.
Besides many of the developers Banks has represented, the bank’s customers include several of his family members and some business partners, including an owner of Tavern on Rush.